Landmarks in US Immigration Policy

September 25, 2007

With varying degrees of success over the past half-century, U.S. and Mexican governments have attempted to manage the flow of Mexican nationals to the United States. These attempts have alternately contributed to a hardening and a softening of the relationship between the two countries. More often than not the attempts have been, to a certain degree, contentious and divisive. What follows is a list of some landmark moments:

  • 1920s: Motivated by fears of growing immigration from southern and eastern Europe, and the “red scare” following World War I, the Harding Administration passes the Immigration Act of 1921, imposing an annual limit of 375,000 immigrants to the United States. Later, the Coolidge Administration passes the Immigration Act of 1924, which establishes national-origin quotas for would-be immigrants. The idea is to protect the “national character” of the United States. The limits and quotas enacted in these years lead to the creation of the Border Patrol.
  • 1942: Responding to U.S. labor shortages during World War II, the two countries sign the bilateral Bracero Treaty, providing legal temporary visas for short work contracts on U.S. ranches and farms. Until its termination in 1964, the program brings 4.6 million Mexican laborers into the United States, many of whom are able to “leak out” of the program and melt into a growing illegal population that works for less than Bracero contract wages.
  • 1952: During the negotiations for the third renewal of the Bracero program, Mexican officials unsuccessfully demand that the United States sanction employers who hire undocumented Mexicans. In 1952, Congress passes the Texas Proviso, which makes harboring an illegal entrant a felony, but does not punish those who employ them.
  • 1954: The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) starts an aggressive crackdown on illegal Mexican immigrants in “Operation Wetback.” One million undocumented workers are apprehended, and many are deported along with their U.S.-born children.
  • 1965: The U.S. Congress passes the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, which limits the number of entry visas and changes the criteria of quotas from country of origin to a preference for skilled laborers. Further amendments to the Act in 1976, 1978 and 1980 unsuccessfully attempt to restrict the growing migration from Mexico. At various moments throughout the 1960s and 1970s the Mexican government lobbies for a legal temporary worker program, but is unsuccessful.
  • 1986: Acting on a rising nativist trend in California, President Ronald Reagan declares illegal migration to be a threat to national security. The following year Congress passes the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), increasing funds for the Border Patrol, sanctioning employers for hiring unauthorized workers and extending amnesty to 2.3 million unauthorized Mexicans already living in the United States. Many argue that the IRCA upsets the natural balance of the labor market, turning temporary, seasonal labor flows into large, permanent migrations.
  • 1993-94: In the run-up to the enactment of NAFTA, the migration issue is conspicuously left off the negotiation table, widely perceived to be a deal-breaker for the United States. NAFTA does, however, provide a limited number of visas for high-level intra-company executives.
  • 1994: California voters pass Governor Pete Wilson’s Proposition 187, barring illegal immigrants from non-emergency health care and public schooling. The proposition is later found to be unconstitutional.
  • 1996: President Clinton signs the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA), which tightens asylum claims and increases penalties on unauthorized migrants. The ensuing crackdown eliminates any hopes of an amnesty window and motivates strong protests from the Mexican government. The Welfare Reform Act is passed in the same year, making even legal immigrants ineligible for unemployment or health benefits. This measure clogs the INS with years of backlogged citizenship requests.
  • 1995-1997: In March 1995, at a meeting of the Migration and Consular Affairs Group of the Mexico-United States Bi-national Commission, a high-level blue-ribbon joint study is commissioned on migration. The “Bi-national Study: Migration Between Mexico and the United States,” delivered two years later, represents the first bilateral effort to arrive at a consensus over the numbers and nature of Mexico-U.S. migration. The report does not recommend any particular actions, but recommends further cooperative research.
  • 2000-01: The administration of Vicente Fox proposes a “NAFTA-plus” agreement to start up another guest worker program. The Fox proposal initially receives an enthusiastic reception from President Bush. U.S. enthusiasm wanes by the summer of 2001.
  • 2002: On March 22, U.S. and Mexican officials sign the United States-Mexico Border Partnership Agreement, known as the “Smart Border” agreement, which seeks to ease the flow of goods and people while at the same time tightening security.
  • 2005: In May, the U.S. House and Senate approve the Real ID Act, a rider attached to an $82 billion supplementary budget for U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. The bill makes asylum claims more difficult and allows for the construction of a larger fence at the U.S.-Mexico border. Importantly, it prohibits undocumented immigrants from holding driver’s licenses.

James T. Kimer is an editorial assistant at NACLA. He recently completed a joint Masters in Latin American studies and journalism at New York University.

Tags: US immigration, US-Mexico border, US immigration policy, US politics

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